The Ptolemaic Kingdom
After Alexander died at the age of 33 with no secure heir to his empire, his sons were murdered. Through a series of power struggles Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals took control of Egypt. The Egyptians accepted his rule and lineage as the successors to the pharaohs. The Ptolemy family ruled Egypt for 300 years. For most of this period Judea became a client-state to Egypt and was basically left alone.
The history of Israel leading up to the time of Jesus is quite important for understanding historical context. What led to the Roman occupation of Judea?
How did the recent history of growing Greek influence lead to the War of the Maccabees?
What did the first century Jews think of the Maccabean era?
We will try to give a summary of these events with hyperlinks into later periods affected by what we learn.
The Seleucid Empire
Seleucus, who had also served as a commander in Alexander's forces established power in Babylon in 312 BC. This date is used as the beginning of the Seleucid Empire whose capital was Antioch in Syria.
In 223 BC Antiochus III the Great came to power. One of the greatest Seleucid kings, Antiochus III, took advantage of Ptolemy IV's death and expanded the empire, but then found himself fighting against a new foe, the Roman Empire. He failed in this battle, was forced to retreat, give up land to Roman allies and pay a large sum of money to Rome for his mistake. Over the 100 years of Seleucid power the influence of Hellenization in this region of the world had been fairly aggressive and welcomed by most people. In Judea the Hellenization had been widely accepted as well, but not by everyone.
The Maccabean Revolt
In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes came to power as the Seleucid Ruler with an agenda to expand the empire. He attacked and overthrew the Ptolmaic Empire in Egypt, thus Judea came under Seleucid control. Antiochus Epiphanes was also determined to push Hellenization. We learn from 1 Maccabees what the Jews faced and what they thought about being "Hellenized."
In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, "Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us." This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant....
After subduing Egypt, Antiochus returned...He went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took...the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures which he found. Taking them all, he departed to his own land. He committed deeds of murder, and spoke with great arrogance.
- 1 Macc 1:11-15, 20-24
This marks the beginning of The Maccabean Revolt, a period of Jewish rebellion provoked by a Gentile ruler denying religious freedom and persecuting the Jewish nation. It was brutal on the part of the Seleucids, heroic on Israel's part, and the emotional/nationalistic effects of this conflict were felt into the time of Jesus and even the early Christians as they endured similar Roman persecution.
The details of the entire history are somewhat uncertain. Our best sources are 1-3 Maccabees and Antiquities written by the Jewish first century historian Josephus. Josephus used Maccabees extensively, but neither can be trusted completely - both had political/religious agendas. It is clear that some of the ruling families in Jerusalem welcomed Antiochus and the changes he wanted. This "liberal" Jewish ruling class forms an agreement with the Gentile king starting an internal conflict that would eventually lead to an independent Israel.